When I wrote my preview for the Phillies last season, I picked them to finish first in the division, with something like 93 wins and their sixth straight division title. I did that for a few reasons: One, because I am an optimist and a homer, two, because I thought their pitching would be good enough to buoy an iffy offense, and three, because I underestimated the strength of both the Washington Nationals and the Atlanta Braves.
This season, however, I know better. The time for hopeless optimism has passed, and in its place is a cold, sad, and unforgiving dose of reality: The Phillies aren't awful, but they aren't necessarily good, either. Do I think they have a shot at the playoffs? Sure. Will it be an easy path to October? Not by a longshot.
Comparatively, the 2013 team figures to be quite a bit better than their 2012 counterparts. The rotation is probably going to be about the same, but both the offense and the bullpen should be quite a bit better than they were one year ago, thanks to health, youth, and an additional helping of talent.
The biggest challenge for the Phillies, of course, is themselves. While the Nationals and Braves will be tough customers, their ability to stay healthy is going to ultimately have more of an impact than just about anything else. If Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Roy Halladay, Jimmy Rollins and the rest can't stay on the field, then it might not matter how the bullpen does or how dominant Cole Hamels is.
Of course, health is only part of the equation, because the whole “you have to score runs and compete with two really good division rivals” does have a little bit to do with how well a team performs. And in the National League East, the Phillies do have their work cut out for them. The Nationals might just be better than they were last year, and the Braves aren't going to go quietly, either. They have a good rotation, a good lineup, and one of the best bullpens in the game.
That's not to say that they can't compete, because they do have enough talent to make some noise in the division. While the Nationals are far and away the best team in the division, the Phillies have enough firepower and enough arms to propel them back to the playoffs.
Aside from the rotation, the Phillies are sporting a lineup with enough bats to score some runs. The presence of a healthy Chase Utley and Ryan Howard is going to pay dividends, and the addition of the speedy Ben Revere and the veteran Michael Young add more depth and talent to an offense that is coming off a year in which they were sorely lacking.
The team's greatest strength, however, might just be their bullpen. Thanks to the addition of RHPs Mike Adams and Chad Durbin to a 'pen that included Jonathan Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo, and a bevy of young arms Phillippe Aumont and Jeremy Horst, the Phillies have turned a weakness into a strength.
However, the real difference-maker for the Phillies this year is going to be Roy Halladay. Following a lackluster 2012 and a rough Spring Training, the team's new number three starter is going to be the difference between an average pitching rotation, and a good one. With Kyle Kendrick and Jon Lannan at the back end of the rotation, it's crucial for Doc to return to his former self if the Phillies want to have a shot.
All told, the 2013 Phillies are far more well-equipped than the 2012 squad. That's not saying much, but considering that last year's team managed to finish .500 despite their issues is actually somewhat of a positive. They are going to need a lot of things to go their way if they want to play baseball in October again, but baseball is a funny game, and anything is possible.
My prediction? Thanks to a much-improved bullpen and a solid lineup, the Phillies will go 91-71, which should be good enough to snag one of the Wild Card spots.
The season began in Atlanta on Monday night. Let's see if these Phillies have one more run in them.